Is it a mistake to try to translate Spanish phrases literally? A bilingual friend says to just memorize what the phrase means. For example" a lo mejor" means maybe or perhaps. What does it mean literally? To the better?
I understand "a lo mejor" means maybe or perhaps. If one translate the phrase literally does it mean "to the better". A bilingual friend advised me not to try to literally translate Spanish phrases in an attempt to aid memorisation. Rather he believes it would be best just to memorize what the phrase means. So not only must Spanish words be memorized but also Spanish phrases. What is your advice?
"a lo mejor"
to/for the greater - the sense is quite similar to saying "probably" / "most likely" / "the greater likelihood is that ..." Thus, the Spanish expression/idiom is not just a random string of words that makes no sense. The fact that the idea is not expressed quite this way in English, is, essentially, irrelevant. Language X is under no obligation to mimic the phrasing of any other language, much less some specific language Y (however convenient that might be for speakers of Y wishing to learn X).
It will certainly do you no harm to attempt a "literal" translation. If the process helps you remember the meaning, well and good. If not, all you've done is waste a bit of time/energy. On the other hand, if you think that the way to learn Spanish (or any language) is by "memorizing words", you're in for trouble.
Your first problem will be idioms i.e. cases in which the phrase is greater than (or, at least, different from) the sum of its parts (the words). Personally, I enjoy thinking about idiomatic expressions in various languages (especially English) and trying to imagine/figure out "Why is it said this way?" This is, however, an exercise in philology or the history of the development of some language(s). To be proficient in a language you need to be able to use/recognize the language's idioms. Knowing how they came to be may be interesting but, is by no means, necessary.
Most people (when speaking/writing) in their own language do not give much thought to individual words (one may occasionally consider alternatives to a particular word in a given sentence but, on the whole, people string together phrases to make up their sentences. Psychologists/psycho-linguists often refer to these as "chunks". Thus, your aim should be (if proficiency is your goal) to "memorize phrases". Learning specific words/vocabulary is, of course, also important but these words must be assembled into acceptable phrases for real communication.
If one were to simply translate word for word, you would be better off submitting paragraphs to google translator, which DOES translate word for word, and nothing more, and I'd hope we all know how accurate/reliable google translator is... In order to correctly understand something when translating from spanish to english, then emotion, context, tense, and especially (one of the things many people forget, and yet one of the most important pieces) the perspective of the person speaking. If not, then I'm sure not everyone minds being labeled a 'gringo'....
Often it is impossible to translate phrases from one language to another word for word. A simple example would be: "¿Cuántos años tienes?" Word for word that would be "How many years do you have?" but we would never actually say that in English so you have to understand that it means "How old are you?" This is the case with many phrases. I think that it's good to know the word for word translation just to help you learn what individual words mean. For example, it's good to know that "años" means "years" instead of "old". But ultimately you will have to learn how to think in the language that you are learning which means that it's important to remember what phrases that can't be translated directly mean.
You can not always translate an English sentence into Spanish word for word. Sometimes you can, but not always.
For instance, there is an expression that goes like this:
"de vez en cuando"
This phrase means "occasionally" or "from time to time".
However, if I translated it word for word it would read:
"of time in when"
So my suggestion is to memorize as much vocabulary as possible, learn your grammar rules and the basic structure of a Spanish sentence. In addition, learn as many phrases, like the one above as possible. It just so happens that a great new feature has been added to this site to help you do this. Give it a try: Phrasebook
By all means, learn the phrase rather than word for word.
Imagine if you were teaching someone English and had the sentence "He drives me nuts." Would you instruct them to picture a guy behind the wheel of a car, with a bagful of almonds or cashews? Noooo. You'd have them picture this: